Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sadly, Buffalo Plane Crash Raises Old Issues Anew

In the 1980's, I covered aviation safety for the Milwaukee Journal and wrote story after story about the very issues revealed in this winter's crash in Buffalo, NY, of a Colgan Air/Continental Express Dash-8 commuter plane that killed 50 people:

Pilot training that didn't exceed Federal Aviation Administration minimums.

Sleepy, inexperienced, low-paid pilots unable to react quickly to bad weather or other stressful conditions, particularly on take off or landing.

Poor cockpit management (chit-chat side-by-side, as conditions deteriorated and the landing approached) and coordination between pilot and co-pilot.

Most aviation accidents involve what used to be known simplistically as "pilot error," which we now know to be very human mistakes when relatively unforgiving events like equipment failures, bad weather or a combination of factors cascade quickly to disaster.

What's heart-breaking about the Buffalo crash is that the FAA has not moved assertively to require of owners more intensive flight simulator training and other safety-minded upgrades to company programs governing how pilots are selected, trained, monitored, evaluated, and - - crucially - - how they are matched up in cockpits.

The two-person crew at the controls of the doomed Dash-8 had relatively few hours flying that type of plane.

The 24-year-old co-pilot was making $23,000 a year. Both pilots were commuting to their New York-area base from far away - - Florida and Washington State - - and were fatigued before they took off.

The best pilots - - like the heroic US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who glided his enormous and powerless Airbus safely into the Hudsom River - - rise to the top of the major airlines, flying big jets above the weather and earning good salaries.

Younger, or lesser pilots, are too often flying those very shorter-hop commuter runs where there is a greater number of potentially problematic take offs and landings and also more lower-altitude, rigorous flying - - the very circumstances where weather and danger can come faster, more furiously and perhaps fatally.

In icing conditions above Buffalo, without enough rest, experience, team work and luck, an over-matched crew lost control of their airplane, and 50 people died.

It's really not hindsight to say it shouldn't have happened.


Anonymous said...

After reading this article, why would you want a water works run by a bare bones, underpaid, under-experienced staff? When important jobs that affect the public are subjected to cost cutting, we all lose.

James Rowen said...

I'm not sure if this is the greatest analogy in the world, but I agree that cutting costs in vital positions is very short-sighted.